The sky is falling on American media.
That was the message in every newspaper and television station across the country on Aug. 1 when Rupert Murdoch finalized his takeover of Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal. Since Murdoch is a media tycoon and egotist with a love for crowding out competition and forcing his opinion on an unsuspecting public, what could possibly be worse?
Just consider that, according to the Guardian, all 175 of the publications in Murdoch’s empire editorialized support for the war in Iraq in 2003. Or consider that Murdoch is so cozy with legislators around the world that he has both avoided media ownership laws and helped create laws more favorable to media monopolies like his company News Corp. Or just tune in to Fox News Channel sometime.
But while all the hoopla about Murdoch made for a riveting story, the media missed a more important, but far less glamorous, story. Although a Murdoch-controlled Wall Street Journal isn’t ideal, if the current state of America’s media moved closer to its demise, it probably didn’t happen on August 1, 2007. It probably happened on July 15, 2007. That was the day when the postage rates for periodicals increased.
On the surface it’s easy to brush this off as an inconsequential change that won’t do much but raise the cost of your Sports Illustrated by a few cents. But that’s not quite the case. For the thousands of small, independent publications across the country, these pennies are adding up to massive, unexpected increases in cost – costs that many of these magazines can’t afford and certainly can’t afford to pass on to their readers.
Already situated in a fragile market that places mass-media corporations at a clear advantage from the start, independent publications are highly vulnerable to this postage increase. If they choose to pass the cost onto readers, they risk losing an already dwindled readership. If they choose to meet the costs head on, they may have to skim valuable content from their publications or cut staff.
Although the change affects all small publications relatively equally across the political spectrum, from the leftist magazine The Nation to the right-wing The National Review, it doesn’t affect all publications equally.
According to a May op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times by Teresa Stack and Jack Fowler, when the United States Postal Service originally proposed the postage increase, it was supposed to be a 12-percent hike for all publications. But, that proposal was abandoned, and in its place, a proposal drafted by the largest magazine publisher in the country, Time Warner, was pushed through.
By giving preference to higher-weighted items and bulk mail, the new rate system is expected to raise the cost for large publications slightly while piling on increases to the small publications. Some estimates from McGraw-Hill even estimate that it could increase postage for small magazines by as much as 30 percent. But because the new system is so confusing, no one is certain.
Regardless, the new postage system promises to be an added threat to an already endangered, but important, part of American media. Publications like The Nation and The National Review offer something that the media monopolies don’t. While the tradition of investigative reporting is largely dying at newspapers across the country, these magazines are challenging and provoking, even if you disagree with the political ideology they advocate.
If the American media is going to die, it isn’t going to end with the bang of Murdoch’s fortune – it’s going to end with a whimper, as small publications across the country wither away.
Gary Graca is the summer editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.